Home Massachusetts Alexander Graham Bell Takes Up Medicine

Alexander Graham Bell Takes Up Medicine

by
9 comments

The brilliant inventor Alexander Graham Bell found his greatest success with the telephone,. But perhaps his highest profile effort at inventing came when he tried his hand at medicine. He did it in an effort to save the life of the president of the United States.

The assassination of James Garfield less than four months into his term of office on July 2, 1881 became one of the oddest spectacles in American history.

Charles Guiteau

Charles Guiteau. an insane aspiring politician, shot Garfield at what he claimed was God’s direction. He believed the president didn’t show enough gratitude for Guiteau’s political support. That consisted of publishing an unusual endorsement pamphlet.

A magazine illustration depicting Alexander Graham Bell's efforts to save the president.

A magazine illustration depicting Alexander Graham Bell’s efforts to save the president.

Guiteau then performed as a newspaper sideshow right up until his execution. He recited poems for his defense at trial and danced up the gallows steps. He waved to the assembled crowd and recited one final poem, ‘I Am Going to the Lordy.’ One aspect of his defense was his claim that while he admitted shooting Garfield, he had not killed him. Guiteau blamed the president’s inept medical care for his demise – and on that point he was probably correct.

Charles Guiteau

He had approached the president at a Washington, D.C., train station as he tried to leave the city for the New Jersey seashore. Guiteau shot him twice, one bullet grazing his shoulder and the other lodging in his body behind his pancreas.

Some observers initially suspected – and quickly concluded they were wrong – that Vice President Chester Arthur was behind the shooting. That’s because after the deed Guiteau shouted: “I did it and I want to be arrested! Arthur is President now!”

Malpractice

Not quite. Garfield would, in fact, survive for two months and 18 days following the shooting. He was taken to the White House, where navy engineers rigged an air conditioner to alleviate the heat of Washington’s summer. They set up a box of ice and had fans blow the air over it into the president’s sickroom.

James A. Garfield

Garfield’s surgeons had initially mistaken the path of the bullet that felled the president when they attempted to locate it. For the next 11 weeks they became obsessed with trying to find it, repeatedly probing into his back with unwashed hands and surgical instruments.

Had they left him alone, most medical experts have concluded, Garfield probably would have survived. However, the infection that set in following the shooting and multiple surgeries eventually overwhelmed him.

Alexander Graham Bell

In one of the odder attempts at locating the bullet, Alexander Graham Bell would be called in from Cambridge, Mass., to assist. The Scotsman had gained fame five years earlier with the successful demonstration of his invention of the telephone in Massachusetts. He was working on his latest idea, which he thought might help.

Alexander Graham Bell

Bell was developing what we would today call a metal detector – one of those devices that emits a crackling whine when waved over something metal.

Bell worked furiously to refine his device. He brought it to Washington, where he tried twice – on July 26th and later on August 1st – to use it to locate the bullet within the fading president.

There would be no ‘Watson. Come Here. I need you’ moment. The crude metal detector may have found the bullet, but without enough specificity for anything to be done about it.

Garfield would pass away on September 19, and the commercialization of the metal detector would not come for another 40 years.

This story was updated in 2022.

9 comments

Paula Mine
Paula Mine July 26, 2014 - 7:51 am

Its’ no wonder many of us are afraid to go to the doctor. I think it’s probably genetic, like the fear of snakes. lol

Hold Please: George Coy Launched the First Commercial Telephone Exchange - New England Historical Society January 28, 2015 - 8:31 am

[…] Butt dialing, prank phone calls, and the busy signal all owe their existence to Coy, an enterprising man who was inspired by a lecture by Alexander Graham Bell. […]

Katharine Gibbs Invents the Modern Professional Secretary - New England Historical Society March 14, 2015 - 12:36 pm

[…] nature of office work began to change as well. Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone in 1870. The Remington Arms Co. introduced a commercial typewriter in 1873. […]

Flashback Photos: The Great Boston Fire of 1872 - New England Historical Society March 9, 2016 - 8:16 am

[…] them. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., watched the fire from Beacon Hill and wrote a poem about it. Alexander Graham Bell submitted and eyewitness account to the Boston Globe but was […]

The Deaf Vineyarders Who Talked With Their Hands - New England Historical Society April 20, 2017 - 3:55 pm

[…] Alexander Graham Bell conducted genealogical research on Martha’s Vineyard, trying to isolate the cause of deafness. […]

John Humphrey Noyes Finds Out Sex and Silverware Don’t Mix - New England Historical Society May 22, 2018 - 8:44 am

[…] Criticism, apparently, didn’t work too well on one member of the community. Charles Guiteau lived in Oneida for five years before going off to assassinate President James Garfield. […]

Helen Keller, Not Quite the Nice Lady Who Campaigned for Peace - New England Historical Society June 27, 2018 - 7:36 am

[…] parents sought the advice of Alexander Graham Bell, who recommended they contact the Perkins School for the Blind in South […]

The Tariffville Disaster Inspires the First Emergency Phone Call - New England Historical Society January 9, 2019 - 9:19 am

[…] from the railroad’s main office. He knew that a nearby druggist on Capitol Avenue had installed Alexander Graham Bell’s speaking telephone. He rushed over and used the store's telephone to call other doctors for […]

The Rise and Fall of the Fore River Shipyard - New England Historical Society May 18, 2020 - 5:54 am

[…] had loaned money to his boss, Alexander Graham Bell, to help him develop the telephone. He was the same Watson who Bell had summoned through the phone […]

Comments are closed.